and Responding to Liberalism
first time I visited the gothic York Minister in England the thing I
noticed was the damage that had been caused by a lightening strike to
the roof. Some commentators were drawing a link between this event
and pronouncements that had recently been made by the Bishop of
Durham, David Jenkins, to the effect that the resurrection of Christ
was nothing more than a “conjuring trick with a bag of bones”.
Whether or not the weather had a hand in speaking for God, the
cleric’s alleged comments caused a storm of its own and threw
into sharp perspective the dimension of unbelief that existed in the
or modernism, is nothing new. During my growing-up years my parents
left the church they had been instrumental in founding because a new
minister was an acknowledged modernist. “Jesus isn’t
mentioned on every page of the Bible”, was his reply to those
who asked why he didn’t preach Christ. He had sorely missed
the salient point, explained by Jesus, that the Scriptures spoke
about him (John 5:39, cf Luke 24:27).
is still alive and well. If we are to be relevant Christians in a
world of uncertainty we need to know what we believe and how to
detect nascent unbelief in our own circles. Church life surveys in
the West over recent years have revealed that a growing number of
clergy and other church leaders question (or do not hold to) the
inspiration of the Bible as the Word of God, with all that flows from
such a precarious premise. Much has been written for and against the
approach to defining Christian belief and praxis that is generically
known by the terms “liberalism”, or “modernism”.
But what is it?
heart, theological liberalism is a system of unbelief that
effectively undermines Christian faith from with the established
church. It operates on the basis of secular intellectualism
masquerading as serious exegesis (study of the Bible and the
circumstances in which it was written and compiled). Its proponents
are not Biblical Christians. If we are to make our faith relevant to
an unbelieving world we need to hold to those truths the Holy Spirit
has revealed to the church and live out the power of Christ in our
is a pseudo-faith that deifies man and dethrones God. It is located
between ancient orthodoxy and experimental new cults. It is, in
essence, an anti-belief system that preaches a vacuum of belief.
in the New Testament
Sadducees were the liberal theologians of Jesus’ day. They
focussed on the Law but rejected the supernatural, including angels,
spirits, resurrection, judgement and divine intervention in the
world. Jesus criticised them for “knowing neither the
Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29).
The Apostle Paul prophesied that
people in the last days would have “a form of godliness
(religion) but deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). He
warned the Colossian Christians, “See to it that no one takes
you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on
human tradition and the basic principles of this world, rather than
on Christ” (Colossians 2:8). At the close of the first
century, John recorded a warning that the Laodicean church was “rich,
had acquired wealth, needed nothing”, but Jesus Christ was on
the outside (Revelation 3:14-22).
modern ministers and churches have been influenced by the same
thinking. We need to understand the way liberals view the Bible,
Christ, the Christian life and the church’s role in society;
We have to be equipped to distinguish between liberal principles and
Biblical revelation and then to respond confidently with
life-changing truth in a way that informs and changes lives.
did liberalism come about?
shift from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance (which made a cult
of “man” and revived the Classics in place of the Bible)
led to the abandonment of “absolutes” (sects,
denominations and philosophies flourished after the Reformation).
This resulted in a loss of Christian imprint on a nominally
“Christian” society in the 17th-and
Centuries and led to acquiescence by the Church to non-Christian
values (such as slavery, a savage prison system; inhumane treatment
of children; eugenics and so-called “Social Darwinism”)
and to a search for a more “acceptable” message.
has contributed to a weakening of missionary enterprise in many parts
of the world (British colonisation did not get involved in local
belief systems), contributing to acceptance of pluralism, unqualified
ecumenism and accommodation with non-Christian world views. This is
to be expected in non-Christian circles; where it has filtered
through to Christian paradigms the damage has been substantial.
Liberalism has taken advantage of a lack of credible, high level
evangelical scholarship equipped to meet the challenges of secular
humanism and provide answers and clarifications that thinking people
are demanding. A consequence has been a spiritual vacuum, concern
for material values on the part of many Christians, instead of
concern for spiritual values above all else; and weakening of the
moral authority of the church. Instead of godly values, emphases on
man’s physical and environmental welfare and capacity for self
improvement have triumphed over the state of his soul and
relationship with God. Selfishness and loss of community have led to
demands for self-fulfilment “now”, instead of concern
with fulfilling God’s will and preparing for eternity (Liberals
contend evangelical Christians are myopic about the future and
neglect pressing social needs).
are the main differences between liberals and evangelical Christians?
believe some things in the world are stable and fixed (Malachi 3:6a;
Hebrews 13:8). They believe conclusions can be reached in the field
of theology that can be regarded as certain and final (such as Jesus
as the embodiment of Truth, John 14:6). They believe the Bible was
written by men under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; that it is
the infallible and inerrant Word of God (2 Peter 1:20-21).
Evangelicals emphasise faith as the basis for the Christian life and
salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 11:6). They believe modern man
must adjust to the Bible (2 Timothy 3:15-17), not the other way
around. They believe the answer to our problems is for man to be
reconciled to God and to man through Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians
5:18-20). Evangelicals believe all men are sinners and that the
death of Christ paid for the sins of the human race. They assert
that God is all-powerful and is able to do what is humanly
impossible, including miracles in the context of the human story.
Christians believe Jesus was both human and divine. Old Testament
prophets foretold the future and events it records were “types”
of things to come. Christianity is predicated on truth about God as
well as ethical standards of behaviour. Christians hold to the truth
that God’s Word and Christ’s salvation are good for every
generation and apply to every generation.
Liberals, on the other hand insist
that belief must not go beyond tentative assumptions, because there
are no absolutes. They believe it is unsafe to develop fixed ideas
about God and theological truth. (Who/what is God? What is he/she
like? What is truth?) They believe the Bible contains (or may not
contain) the Word of God or words about God, that it is just a book,
written by men for men, full of errors, subject to scientific
investigation. Liberals insist the Old Testament was written by
Jews, for the Jews, and no one else. Bishop Barnes said that, “The
Old Testament is Jewish literature. In it are to be found folklore,
defective history, half-savage morality, obsolete forms of worship
based on primitive and erroneous ideals of the nature of God, and
Liberals claim that, apart from their
methods, the Bible cannot be studied. They assert
the Gospels are inaccurate and inconsistent. Benjamin Franklin’s
“The Life and Teachings of Jesus of Nazareth” removed all
of the miracles and much of the teachings of Jesus. Thomas Jefferson
(a Deist) went through the Gospels picking out ethical and moral
teachings and produced the “Jefferson Bible”.
that a modern man or woman who honestly faces all the recent
scientific discoveries can no longer accept the supernatural elements
of Christianity. They believe the Bible must adjust to modern man
and the answer to our problems is man’s reconciliation with man
evangelical beliefs offend modern sensibilities. There is no place
for repentance. In some circumstances “confession” is
acceptable, but only for therapeutic or cathartic value. To
Liberals, the Bible is just a human document; written to inspire
religious experience, the record of some peoples’ experiences
expressed in mythological or poetic language, not reliable in
historical terms. The interpreter is free to decide which teaching
he or she will believe or rule out. (Archaeological discoveries,
including sites I have visited) have shown the methods and
conclusions of many liberals to be wrong; scores of events and places
denied by them have been proven by subsequent scientific evidence.)
To the die-hard liberal everything is explicable within the laws of
science. Statements in the Bible that are contrary to their world
view are ruled out as “primitive”.
divinity is rejected by liberals, who believe it was invented by
religious writers. The miracles of Jesus are seen as assertions of
belief rather than statements of fact. The work of Christ is
dismissed. Notions of sin and sacrifice are seen as Greek or Jewish
ideas, which must be reinterpreted.
religion ethics and morals. They assert that we live in a “modern”
world and need a modern message. (What we need, in fact, is a
presentation of the eternal truth in a contemporary way, which is
different.) Liberals claim the Bible has out-of-date stories,
concepts and values, that it needs to be reinterpreted to fit current
epistemologies, changing social conditions and new theological
beliefs. Liberals reject the existence of God (in some cases),
Biblical inspiration (or else they emphasise partial inspiration);
the authority of the Bible (it is up to us to find out for ourselves;
all views are ultimately valid and each person should live in the
light they have); the literality of Biblical accounts of creation,
the fall, the flood, Jonah, Daniel and other prophets, the Trinity,
the miraculous elements of Jesus' life & ministry, the primacy of
Jesus Christ (seen as just a teacher of ethics) and his vicarious
death and resurrection. They refuse to accept the personhood of the
Holy Spirit, the new birth (described by Jesus in John 3:1-8), or the
concepts of holiness, Judgement, Second Coming and Hell.
emphasise current social issues, such as the environment, human
rights, sexuality, women in ministry, social justice, access and
equity, use of the behavioural sciences (without God) to meet human
needs, cultural relativism, situational ethics, economic equality and
indigenous rights, stressing a “social” interpretation of
passages such as the Sermon on the Mount (while missing their
underlying spiritual truths). These are all issues on which
Christians need to have credible and well-argued positions, but not
at the expense of "core truth".
are the results of liberalism?
becomes a faith system, when Christ has no authority, people become
selective about what they will read and believe. In these
circumstances, it is possible for an agnostic to function as a member
of the clergy. A sense of futility emerges, as people wonder why
they should bother with Christianity at all (Romans 1:21). Belief
becomes shallow and uncertain, hope dies, church attendance declines,
the Church loses its moral authority, man is magnified, God is
minimized, cults and neo-paganism grow as people become disillusioned
with “the church”, there is no missions vision because
there is nothing to share, the Bible loses its authority and there is
no hope for lasting change in the human condition. (Man is incapable
of ultimate self-fulfillment by the powers of intellect; he has no
inherent capacity for love, forgiveness or charity).
to the challenge of liberalism
do we respond to the challenges of godless, faithless, imperious
liberal theology? There are several things we need to remember. The
first is, don’t
despair – God is alive and well! Be secure in the divine
revelation (Jesus emphasised the literality of the Old Testament).
Start with revelation rather than ideology (otherwise we will end up
picking and choosing with the same eclecticism as the modernists).
Do not be anti-intellectual but overcome error with truth (cf John
8:32). Don’t be afraid of a scholastic approach, but don’t
put the scholar above the Word either (God has magnified His Name and
His Word above all things, Psalm 138:2). Know what and why you
believe, based on fact.
someone accused Billy Graham of “putting Christianity back 50
years” he responded that he wanted to put it back 2,000 years.
Learn to be a radical Christian. The word “radical”
comes from the Latin word for “root”; a radical Christian
is one who gets back to the Biblical roots of faith (cf Isaiah
dealing with people, it is important that we see past unbelief and
minister to the individual in redemptive love; find out what led to
their current position (eg backsliding; disillusionment with
Christians; “no one had answers during a crisis”) and
allow ourselves to be channels of God’s love for them.
Know why you
believe the Bible to be the Word of God and encourage people to know
and practice it. Emphasise the presence and power of God to meet
peoples' needs. Be open to the Holy Spirit– only He can strive
with people and bring them to genuine repentance. Study books about
apologetics, so that you can answer critics and genuine seekers.
Make Christ the centre of your faith. And don’t neglect social
involvement, or the gap will be filled by others.
Finally, it is
not up to you to change human hearts. Remember it is “Not by
might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord” (Zechariah